Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Do city slicker and country mouse now find each other culturally unrecognizable?

Seems like I'm running across a lot of must-reads for you folks lately.

Here's the one for today, "America's Great Divergence" by Alena Semuels in The Atlantic.

It really doesn't cover any completely new territory. Its theme, the growing cultural (and, of course, economic) divide between urban America and small-town / rural America has been addressed in the book Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance as well as numerous recent NRO articles by Kevin Williamson. The way for this kind of inquiry was paved a few years ago by the book Coming Apart by Charles Murray.

Still, Semuels offers us several valuable insights and visceral vignettes.

She launches her observation with a comparison between two central Indiana residents leading vastly different lives:

Ashley Gabbert and Dan Dark are both white Indiana residents in their early 30s, but their lives look nothing alike.

Gabbert, 32, lives in this town in one of the poorest counties in Indiana, where she works the night shift—10 p.m. to 6:30 a.m.—for an automotive parts manufacturer. Her life now is a step up from the decade she spent working in fast food, which wasn’t “much of a career,” she told me at the local Walmart, where she was shopping for groceries. Working in fast food, she’d frequently encounter drug users as they pulled up to the drive-in window, needles alongside babies in the backseat of their cars. Like 80 percent of people in rural America, Gabbert doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree.
Dark, 33, lives in the increasingly metropolitan city of Indianapolis, where he runs a creative consultancy doing videos and marketing work for a variety of clients. Dark, who is a college graduate, works when he chooses, often from his downtown home or from the coffee shops and bars springing up around downtown Indianapolis. He loves to travel—he recently returned from Iceland—and goes out to meet friends almost every night of the week. The same night Ashley Gabbert was prepping for her night shift by dropping her 11-year-old daughter off with her mother, Dark was cooking a venison stew for a meat-and-bourbon potluck dinner thrown by a friend. “I’ve built my life around flexibility,” he told me.
Semuels zeroes in on the point in recent history at which the divergence exemplified by the different lives led by Gabbert and Dark got underway:

For a century leading up to 1980, poorer regions were catching up to richer regions of the country in terms of wages, as an oversupply of workers in richer regions drove wages down, while an undersupply in poorer regions drove wages up. But this “convergence,” as economists call it, petered out with the rise of computers, according to research by the University of Chicago doctoral candidate Elisa Giannone. Beginning in the 1980s, as computers made certain people more productive and valuable in the labor market and made other people obsolete, wealthy regions with educated workers began to do better and better. Between 1940 and 1980, wages in poorer U.S. areas grew faster than wages in richer places by 1.4 percent per year. But starting in the 1980s, wages in poorer places stopped catching up to those in richer ones, Giannone says.
Like the above-cited works, Semuels depicts the trappings of each setting with telling details: the heroin needles, dollar stores and economic-development directors busting their brains trying to figure out what kinds of business to lure to their small towns to start turning things around versus the bike lanes, poetry slams and upscale bars of the cities.

Semuels concludes with the reasonable observation that Trump's promises of using a combination of good tax policy and bad measures like protectionist browbeating are not going to bring anything like the former robustness to the Connersvilles of America.

Probably wisely, she does not venture into the realm of offering a big, handy solution.

The comments underneath the article add some noteworthy perspectives to what Semuels has offered.

Of course, early on, we get the fetid combination of collectivism and snobbery (not to mention slanderous hyperbole):

Republicans don't want to spend money on education and they damn sure don't want the tripartite governing system where labor has a position on the boards of companies that Germany has. Germany doesn't have a history of management killing labor in the streets so there isn't the adversarial relationship that we have here. They also don't have the infatuation with wealth that we have here. They don't pay top executives anywhere near what we pay ours. That system is politically impossible in America precisely because working class whites have decided that instead of getting together with working class people of all colors, they would rather vote republican. They have prioritized God, Guns and Gays over their economic interests. I'm not judging that choice because it's totally reasonable that people can have different priorities, but the Republican Party has been the party of capital since it's founding. The idea that they are going to start supporting workers rights is laughable.
Another commenter tempers that one's zeal for the German system with some cross-cultural perspective - but still winds up looking favorably on  a collectivist approach:

I am somewhat familiar with Germany. I have quite a few German friends, I havetravelled extensively in Germany and I speak the language. I have lived and worked in neighbouring countries with quite similar (though not fully simlar) cultures, the Netherlands and Norway.
I agree with Marathag that the German approach has much to offer.
But I also agree with Zeeky34 that the German approach is rooted in a economic, political and educational culture that is vastly different from the US way of doing things (here, am lumping together for clarity states as divergent as Louisiana and Washington State).
My best bet, based on my experiences and understanding, is that for parts of the USA to become more like Germany would require substantial changes in educational funding, educational culture - a higher appreciation among both parents and young people for vocational training, for example - wage policies, employer-employee relations, the position of unions (unions are much stronger in Germany), etc. etc.
Beyond that, even more fundamental questions would be interesting: the importance of trust in the government, which I suspect is higher in Germany than in the USA; historical path dependency; the difference in size between the US and German economy; etc. etc.
But that is more something for an essay ;-)
There is the Mike Rowe-esque argument that shop classes would do the trick. My own observation on this is that their disappearance is more inaccurate generalization than actuality. High-school programs  preparing young folks for manufacturing careers - some of them conceived by education coalitions and implemented in several counties at a time - are actually fairly prevalent.

Of course, the identity-politics crowd has to play its victim card:

I grew up in small town Ohio where I was bullied for being queer. I moved to Seattle with nothing but 2 suitcases and made a life for myself. These "good people" tend not to be too good to anyone who is different.
And this:

Small towns are really rough on people who are 'different', I know it quite well myself. Humanity is not exactly known for its tolerance of differences.
As I was leaving little rural Tennessee town last night I had a cop blue light me and check out my id. Not fitting in is difficult. 
This would be in line with what Semuels says about how urban areas - she found it true in Indianapolis and even more so in coastal urban centers like Seattle - voted overwhelmingly for the Democrat ticket in last November's election.

Which gets to a point worth pondering: While the urban living of the college-educated professional is more multifaceted, lively and stimulating, it is leftist at its foundation.

Consider the universities in which the cities slickers have received their education. Here at LITD we have written exhaustively about their descent into utter madness, with gender-studies majors, safe spaces, trigger warnings, juice bars and gyms in dorms, and mob intimidation of conservative speakers.

Yes, you can become quite savvy in some field such as medicine, informatics or supply-chain management, but your worldview is almost certainly going to be colored some shade of blue, unless you are really courageous or focused.

Semuels is correct; there is no magic formula, no one big policy initiative that can ameliorate this cultural dichotomy between the nation's Connersvilles and its Indianapolises.

But I can see something missing from both milieus, something that imparts a brittleness that may be more obvious in the rural setting but is present in the urban setting nonetheless. Quick question: what is conspicuously absent from the entire set of discussions and observations above? Is it not a common assumption that life is to be lived for something beyond the self, a sense that this world is ultimately governed by One who desires good for all that He has created and whose guidance is there for the asking?

Of course, determining just when He was bumped out of the picture would require a historical survey beyond the scope of this post. But is there any denying that bumped He was?

You probably knew I was going to wind up there, didn't you?

And lest you think I am assigning the brunt of the problem to the secular urbanite, consider, per Semuels's voting-behavior findings, that rural America went overwhelmingly for a hedonistic, bombastic narcissist with little to no grounding in Scripture-based spirituality. Small-town dwellers saw him as the repository of all their angst and aspirations.

It's just a rule of thumb I'm coming to see is applicable at any seeming impasse: when it appears that answers are nonexistent, it's time to turn to the King of Yes.

File this one under "When Wonkery Comes Up Short."

It would, it seems to me, go a long way toward preventing city slicker and country mouse from finding each other culturally unrecognizable.

1 comment:

  1. You don't think what you long-for does not occur in the Catholic church where it has occurred since a short while after He tread the earth. And the sea...